22 Sep 2018

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TANYA WATERWORTH : tanya.waterworth@inl.co.za

 EZEMVELO KZN Wildlife vet Dave Cooper will receive the Umvikeli award in New York, US, in November for his dedication in the fight against rhino poaching.

EZEMVELO KZN Wildlife vet Dave Cooper will receive the Umvikeli award in New York, US, in November for his dedication in the fight against rhino poaching.

“He told me he would only leave this job in a wheel chair or a wooden box… I hope he is wrong as both are daily possibilities, but that sums up his passion.” 
That was Debbie Cooper this week, wife of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife vet Dave Cooper who will receive the Umvikeli Award in New York, US, in November for his unstinting efforts in trying to save the rhino from the constant onslaught of poachers. 
He has done well over 500 rhino post-mortems and is regarded as the most experienced vet in the world in this regard: a human cost for him and his team who deal with the slaughter is seldom acknowledged. 
Speaking about the news that he is this year’s recipient of the Umvikeli Award, presented by the Wild Tomorrow Fund based in New York, Cooper said: “I feel honoured and humbled, but I am just one of many and have a whole team who I work with.” 
While the official word from government is that the number of rhino being poached is declining, Cooper said it was still “a regular, frequent occurrence”. 
“The poachers really are professional, they come with tracking devices, shoot well and are meticulous in their planning. There are highly organised crime syndicates behind this,” he said. 
Debbie was open about the emotional toll left on her husband and all the rangers who constantly attend to scenes of horror and carnage left behind by poachers. 
Brutal scenes include rhinos paralysed by a poacher’s bullet to the spine and then beaten to death. Or the use of heavy axes to sever the animal’s spine or Achilles tendons to leave it immobile while the horn is hacked off. 
There are often baby rhinos which try to protect the mother being attacked. The poachers, uninterested in its small horn, will beat it or hack it until it backs off.

In some cases, a severely injured rhino will only be found days later by rangers: poachers will not waste an extra bullet to kill it. 
“There are tough men out there seeking counseling or taking anti-depressants. We know of several who have cracked, or are borderline, under the emotional pressure and trauma. 
“What you have is a group of people thrust into a war, usually with minimal training, let alone psychological preparation for witnessing incredible cruelty and suffering so intimately. 
“Dave’s maturity and experience allows him to detach while he is on the job and do what is necessary, but the results show in different ways – he talks in his sleep about all sorts of jumbled violent things, has a chronic autoimmune disorder and survived a heart attack seven years ago,” adding that Debbie first met Dave when she was working as a journalist and interviewed him. 
He told her, “he would only leave this job in a wheel chair or wooden box… I hope he is wrong as both are daily possibilities, but that sums up his passion” 
Director of Wild Tomorrow Fund (South Africa) Clinton Wright said the award is for outstanding service in the field of wildlife around the world and that Cooper is the second recipient of the award. The first was US Senator Chris Coons for his work to bolster the Wildlife Trafficking Act in America. 
Wright said: “We hold an annual gala evening in November which is attended by donors and includes a few international celebrities. We have worked with Dave for quite a while and he’s the most humble human being in the world. 
“When we first told him about the award, he replied by saying he feels bad he’s been singled out, but we know he represents all those rangers out there. We want to show them it’s not all doom and gloom and that their efforts are making a difference.”